Travel doesn't have to be expensive! Use these budget travel tips to save money by traveling like a savings-savvy backpacker in Asia rather than a vacationing tourist.
Don't Buy Useless Travel Gadgets
Saving money on your trip starts before you hit the road. Don't be tempted by the wide range of gadgets and toys aimed at travelers; most end up not being used at all!
Asking yourself too many "what if" questions and going into survival mode is only going to lead to overpacking. Don't do it.
You don't need expensive, quick-dry underwear or a knife with 20 tools. At the most, you'll end up peeling fruit with it. Keep your travel first aid kit simple; you hopefully won't be doing field surgery.
Numerous travel gadgets out there try to fill strange niche scenarios, but all prey on one thing: travelers' fear of visiting an unfamiliar region. Once you're in Asia for a week, you'll realize that you actually don't need an Army Ranger's compass for walking around Bangkok.
Stick to Local Food
On any extended trip abroad, cravings for familiar food from home are inevitable.
Although the food in Southeast Asian is famously delicious, nearly every budget traveler is tempted at some point to splurge on a pizza, burger, or some other familiar taste from home; rice and noodles tend to lose their appeal after so many iterations!
Restaurants and cafes in Asia are happy to oblige, particularly along the Banana Pancake Trail through Southeast Asia. Western food almost always costs more than local fare, and is often a disappointment.
Unless that pizzeria is owned by an Italian expat — and even then they may not be able to find the ingredients they need — don't expect greatness from a country where bread and cheese aren't parts of the usual diet.
From ketchup being substituted for pasta sauce to white bread smashed flat for rolling up burritos — local eateries will always attempt to meet your cravings with food that often tastes nothing like the equivalent you were craving from home!
Get Off the Beaten Path
Cheaper hotels and restaurants can often be found just one or two streets away from the "main drag" in tourist areas.
These perimeter shops, restaurants, and guest houses are often overlooked by travelers who want to stay in the center of the action. By walking just a couple of blocks, you may find cute, family-run businesses that offer better deals because they don't receive the volume of traffic as places on the main strip.
Bangkok's famous Khao San Road is a good example. The tourist-oriented strip is beaten up pretty badly, and you won't find many deals. But cleaner, friendlier places can be found just a short waking distance away.
Stay in Hostels
Accommodation can quickly add up to one of the largest expenses for budget travelers.
Since you may only be in the hotel to sleep and shower — after all, there's an exciting new country out there to explore — cut costs by staying in budget traveler hostels and guesthouses.
Staying in hostels doesn't necessarily mean taking a bunk in a shared room between eight snoring 20-year olds. Many hostels have private rooms. These rooms usually have less frills (don't expect a phone or television), but who cares! Items such as hair dryers can usually be borrowed from the front desk.
Even staying in discounted hostels and guesthouses will quietly bleed your travel account. There is another option: couchsurfing to the rescue! The social site Couchsurfing.com enables people to offer up guest bedrooms or couches for friendly strangers who are visiting their city.
The hosts are often locals or expats who are interested in meeting — and helping — travelers. The site's rating system ensures that arrangements remain safe and that ill-mannered hosts are avoided by travelers. People can choose hosts based on location, gender, type of room, and even email other travelers who have stayed with the host in the past.
An added benefit of couchsurfing is that you can befriend a local in your destination. Knowing a local will help you to avoid blowing money in tourist spots; they'll gladly share their knowledge of the insider places. Plus, having a kitchen will help you save money by cooking meals at home rather than eating out.
Keep the Partying in Check
Experienced backpackers will confirm: The number one expense while on the road is often alcohol.
This little revelation can be a little humbling and embarrassing, but it's true. Although prices for food in places such as Malaysia, Bali, and Singapore are cheap, prices for alcohol are higher. Those rooftop-bar and beach-sunset cocktails add up over the course of a trip.
You will inevitably spend far more time socializing while traveling than you normally do at home, so learn to keep the party expenses in check. Consider buying spirits to enjoy in your own setting, or learn how to go out without blowing your budget.
Be Smart When Calling Home
The only smart way to call home from Asia now days is with a VoIP (voice over IP) service.
Calls made home using public phones, credit cards, calling cards, call centers, or the phone at your accommodation are archaic and costly options — don't do it!
Simply dialing home with your mobile phone may also be expensive, depending on your carrier's roaming charges or the policy of the local telecom from which you purchased your SIM card.
Calls can be made over the internet via programs such as Skype. WhatsApp is a popular messaging application that allows free calls between smartphone users.
In a pinch, many internet cafes offer headsets and computers with Skype for calling home. A typical call to the US using a VOIP service costs less than two cents per minute.
Skip the Guided Tours
While legitimate guides can often enhance a visit to places such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia by explaining the history, you can probably do without hiring a guide for the day just to see local waterfalls and other sites.
Before booking a group tour, ask yourself if you can get there independently and if it may be more enjoyable alone.
Backpackers and budget travelers in Asia simply make their own way to local attractions for a fraction of the costs, and often get to enjoy places longer and at their own pace rather than being rushed along by an impatient guide.
Before accepting one of the many offers of a local guide for the day, first see if you can use public transportation or team up with others to see local landmarks and sites.
If you do hire a guide, try to go with a local organization rather than a Western company that is trying to cash in.
Negotiate for Everything
Nearly anything and everything in Asia is negotiable. A little good-natured haggling is often expected and part of local culture.
Although negotiation is often an uncomfortable process for Westerners, it is a part of daily life for locals. Learn to have fun doing it!
Try these budget travel tips to save money:
- If staying in a place for a week or longer, try negotiating for a cheaper rate when you first check in.
- Team up with other travelers to negotiate bulk pricing on tours, rooms, and transportation.
- Don't buy the first kitsch souvenirs that you encounter. Make trinket purchases in bulk to gain more leverage for negotiation.
- Haggling isn't restricted to Asia's open-air markets; you can even negotiate in big shopping malls!
Skip the Air Conditioning
Air-conditioned rooms always cost more than fan rooms in hostels and budget guesthouses due to the relatively high cost of electricity in Asia. Although going without air conditioning in Southeast Asia's heat seems cruel and unusual, a fan will often keep you comfortable enough at night.
Also, the temperature difference between AC inside and the heat outside often makes travelers sick who are slower to acclimate to Southeast Asia's humidity.
Although temperatures outside can be scorching in parts of Southeast Asia, you will probably only be inside your room to sleep — a fan works just fine.
Access Money the Right Way
Using ATMs is often the most convenient way to access money while abroad, however, the fees in places such a Bangkok can be as high as $6 or more per transaction.
Check with your bank before you leave home about foreign transaction fees — ideally, they should be 2 percent or less. Notify your bank and credit card companies about your travel plans so that your cards are not disabled for potential fraud when they see charges pop up in Asia!
Know your currency exchange rates before you arrive at a destination, and shop around before you exchange money. The rates at the airport aren't always the best available.
If unsure, exchange just enough money to get by then look around later for better options.